CLEVELAND—The best basketball player in the world stood by his locker, wearing only a towel, with a bottle of champagne in one hand and childlike glee on his face. This was the same locker where LeBron James sat before games as a young player, back before the CHOSEN 1 tattoo on his back seemed like a statement of fact, and gave the media a few minutes, whether he felt like it or not. Four years ago, many people thought he would never sit there again as Cavalier. But here he was. He just carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals again in a 118–88 Game 4 win. Strange, then, that for most of the night, he did not get the biggest cheers. Those went to Matthew Dellavedova, the backup point guard.
The crowd roared when Dellavedova entered the game, and chanted of “Del-ly!” whenever he did something impressive. Ostensibly, the crowd was supporting Dellavedova because he tussled with the Hawks’ Al Horford in the previous game, and people were starting to call him a dirty player. But there was a deeper reason, too.
LeBron James is from Northeast Ohio.
Matthew Dellavedova is how Cleveland sees itself.
Dellavedova is from Australia, a product of a smaller school (St. Mary’s) who wasn’t even drafted. If he gets into mini-scuffles with bigger players, like Horford and Chicago’s Taj Gibson, then guess what? Cleveland loves him for it. Dellavedova is the little guy, underappreciated and overlooked, reaching for his piece of the pie. If Cleveland had its own currency, guys like Dellavedova would have their faces on it.
[daily_cut.NBA]There is this understandable urge to see this Cavaliers run the way Clevelanders see Dellavedova—as the scrappers rising to the top. And yet, as sushi and hummus sat mostly untouched in the locker room, who was kidding whom? This is all a product of the greatness of LeBron James. He said afterward that, “When I made my decision to come back here, I knew what I wanted to do.”
A year ago, Dan Gilbert was just another failing owner. Now he is talking about all the hard work his organization did to get here, when the reality is that if James grew up in Wilmington, N.C., Gilbert never would lured him back. Not in 1,000 years.
A year ago, David Blatt was a very good European coach, hoping to get his shot in the NBA. Even Kyrie Irving was just a rising NBA star who had never even made the playoffs. So was Kevin Love five months ago, J.R. Smith was considered a loser, and Iman Shumpert was just a pretty good player.
LeBron James is dragging them all to the NBA Finals, the way he dragged the 2007 Cavaliers to the Finals. He left for four years and they stunk for four years. He came back and they’re back. It really is as simple as that.
When James returned, so did the Rust Belt storylines, and he is happy to contribute:
“If you work hard for this city they work hard for you,” he said after the game. “They give everything back to you. We’re just trying to work hard for this city.”
In December 2010, he sat in the same room for a postgame press conference in his first game back in Cleveland with the Miami Heat. He had been booed relentlessly for abandoning Cleveland’s team. The city’s quest to end its championship drought was not his quest, not then. He says it is his now.
The last Cleveland title came in 1964, when the Browns won the NFL championship before there was such a thing as a Super Bowl. But it took a while for Cleveland to get its reputation for losing. Obviously, the first 10 or 15 years after that 1964 title did not constitute a particularly long drought.
The Cleveland-as-Losertown narrative really took off when two of the most talented athletes of the 1980s, John Elway and Michael Jordan, abused Cleveland teams in the biggest games, in the most painful possible way. When Jordan hit “The Shot” over Craig Ehlo, he did so in Cleveland. When Elway conducted “The Drive”—98 yards to force overtime in the AFC Championship Game—that was in Cleveland, too.
Cleveland’s role in these dramas was firmly established: The transcendent talents of sports would torture the city on the lake. So it seemed so perfect when the most gifted 18-year-old basketball player in history, the heir to Jordan, from nearby Akron, landed with the Cavaliers.
And yet, it was an odd marriage, even at the time. James wore Yankees hats and cheered for the Cowboys. It was so ingrained in the city that if Cleveland won anything, it would be grit over talent, determination over glitz. But James was talent, he was glitz, and he still is. James said it himself during these playoffs: He can’t see his team ever being the underdog.
Well, whenever Golden State finishes off the Rockets, the Cavaliers will be the underdogs, and deservedly so. It would be different if Love played, but he won’t, or if Irving were healthy, but he isn’t (at least, right now). The Warriors have a deeper team, a better roster, and superior chemistry with their coach.
This season could well end like all of James’s other seasons in Cleveland: With him carrying an unremarkable roster as far as it can go, then losing to a superior team. The next time somebody talks about James’s poor play in the ’07 Finals, remind them that he was 22 years old, and the Cavaliers’ other starters that year were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes, and Sasha Pavlovic.
Now? His team is better, sure. But consider: The Cavaliers just beat Atlanta by 30. In November, they played Atlanta here, and it was like a completely different team. Dion Waiters played 27 minutes. Joe Harris played 21. Shawn Marion played 24. Anderson Varejao played 21. Love played 30. None of those guys did anything meaningful here Tuesday. And still, the Cavaliers won that November game by 36.
It was one game, and the roster changes have made the Cavs a more cohesive team. But let’s not go too far with that. For the 12th straight year, the Cavaliers will go as far as LeBron James takes them—and yes, that includes the four years when he played for the Heat. He has dragged the 2015 Cavaliers as far as they should reasonably go. If they win one more round, fans will revel in the upset, and players will talk about their teamwork and resolve, but there will be one root cause: This time, LeBron James chose them.